2011 Season Preview

Written by Dominic Aragon, Xander Clements, and Peter Carcia

 

 2011 has some great potential to become one of the greatest seasons in quite a few years, as the “boys, have at it” rule continues to create racing we haven’t seen in years. Now, we come to a big dilemma as the countdown begins to the great American race. Can Jimmie Johnson turn that historical run into a sixth straight title? Can Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick create the same major point battle coming into Homestead, or will someone else step up to the challenge? Much is unknown coming into this season, but here are some things to look for this season.

à #00 David Reutimann-Michael Waltrip Racing

   David Reutimann for the last couple of years has shown a lot of improvement mentally, but has unfortunately not shown it in the statistics. With every good thing that happened statistically for Reuty, there was always a bad part to back it up. Back in 2009, Reutimann had not only the best season of his career, with a 16th place points finish, but also his first win in a rain shortened Coca-Cola 600. Last year, even though he got his first win not shortened by weather, had not-so-good numbers in the rest of the columns. He went from no DNFs to three and an average finish 2 spots lower than the previous year (16.4 to 18.1). He ended up 18th in points, without being one of the guys mathematically in contention going into Richmond, another example of his down year.

   Taking a look at this year, Reutimann looks promising. A writer for Yahoo Sports says that MWR is a third tier team, not as big as places like EGR and RPM, but I beg to differ. Reuty looks like he is one to reckon with when he is on a good run. That’s the key, though, on his good runs, and it will be up to him and his team to make it happen.

- Peter Carcia

 

à #1 Jamie McMurray-Earnhardt-Ginassi Racing (with Felix Sabates)

   Let’s see, winner of the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400, and the only non chase driver to win in the chase for the second straight year. Pretty productive season, right? Not as much as you think. Those three races were very important for Jamie and the rest of the crew, but the only thing that they haven’t been able to do is stay in contention in the points. A lack of consistency and failing to stay out of crashes caused McMurray to lose his chance of getting in the chase. Regardless, it was his best point position since 2005, and the most productive since 2004. Lately, however, we have seen Jamie as the New York Giants so to speak of the Cup Series. On any given race, we see the good, the bad, or the ugly, and that is the reason why he hasn’t been able to make the chase. Although the team had only 3 official DNFs, the team had 9 races in which McMurray finished under 25th. Okay, so Jamie just has bad luck; nobody can blame him for that part of it. It’s getting back those points with better runs that are hurting him. Sadly, the points don’t work in a way that states you can still get in the chase with those numbers already stated and only 11 top 10s. As bad as it sounds, that’s reality (or at least for what we know of…) Bad luck may have thrown away Jamie’s chances this year, but don’t count him out.

- Peter Carcia

à #2 Brad Keselowski - Penske Racing

   There’s a new man inside the blue deuce, and he is coming off a stellar year in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. Yet, up in the big rock of the Sprint Cup, he isn’t on top. In fact, he was 25th in the points, lower than the 3 cup drivers (Edwards, Ky. Busch, Menard) that were closest to stealing his title. Now, we find him in a bigger hole. Brad can still run NNS races, but he won’t be defending his title, so now we are seeing him with only one universal goal; get a championship against the big guys. He has a great staff behind him in Penske’s legendary car, and Keselowski knows how to win in style. The question I’m asking is this: can Keselowski live up to the hype he got after a top 10 Darlington and a win in Dega. In 2010, he certainly failed to do so, and a better funded ride could change that. All in all, Penske is one of the two teams splitting their field in half to save money, and if they can get better equipment in the wake of that, expect Kes to improve.

- Peter Carcia

#4 Kasey Kahne-Team Red Bull

   Kasey Kahne’s late 2010 season races were a bunch to forget. There was tension between him and his team, considering he decided to move somewhere else; Red Bull Racing for one year and then Hendrick the rest afterward. Obviously, the cooperation was not what was expected, even though everyone knew that there would be a little bit of akwardness now thinking from a crew perspective that your driver that you work for has just personally stabbed you in the back with a machete. This was shown and proven to the rest of the fans when at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, Kasey Kahne got into a crash with his number nine Budweiser Ford Fusion, and then felt "Too Sick" to return to the track and try to finish the race and possibly gain a couple more positions on the track before the night was over, forcing the team to either find some back up driver of a Nationwide or Truck type team that hadn't yet left the premises. The weeks afterward for Kahne were tough, going into and through the entire ten-race group that is The Chase with a different number, car, paint scheme, and team than who he started his career with.

   Now heading into 2011, Kahne again has a different number, a slightly adjusted paint scheme, and a couple of changes within the crew, but now expected to run well after the head start he got last year. He showed good progress at the end of the 2010 season, showing that he could take a "middle-class" racecar and team that used to be lucky for a Top-20 finish up to averaging nearly a Top-10 each race. Kahne now has more focus on the engines, a different teammate, and a fresh start with the new year. In high hopes of good finishes in Daytona, all Kahne needs is to show that he still has it can perform by proving it under the Bright Lights of the Florida Nights that is the Budweiser Shootout. That not only proves to the fans that he can still make it happen, but also proves to himself and the rest of his team, giving them much needed confidence heaing into the 500.

   Still, there are the worries of a new team that can cause major issues for TRB. For one thing, without Hendrick motors and/or chassis underneath the fiberglass each week, Kahne and his new crew chief must really "click" when they hit race day. Otherwise, the hopes of a championship and a spot in the Chase could be just dreams and never reality. Kahne does have the capability, and in my opinion so does this team, they just need to find that right combination to get into the land of wins and championships. Hopefully this will be the big moment for Red Bull, but before they have even hit the track, much commenting is hard and normally scarce considering the surprising way that they have stayed out of the big pre-season headlines. They are still in there though, and if my thinking is correct, the #4 Red Bull Racing Toyota Camry will be the sleeper of 2011.

- Xander Clements

à #5 Mark Martin-Hendrick Motorsports

   The Brett Favre of NASCAR is at it again. At 52, Mark Martin is entering his 22 full-time year. Despite five wins in 2009 and 13th in points this past season, Martin is entering his final year of competition for Hendrick Motorsports.

   After spending 19 years with owner Jack Roush full-time (1988-2006), Mark Martin, who had be contemplating retirement since 2004, said he would cut back to part time in 2007. Running for MB2 the next two seasons, Martin drove in 48 of the 72 races, scoring nine top-5 runs and 22 top-10 runs. Winless since 2005, Martin signed with Hendrick Motorsports in July 2008 for a two year deal beginning in 2009.

   In 2009, Martin had an outstanding year, finishing second in points. He didn’t win once, or twice, but FIVE times.

   2010 brought on higher expectations and the quest for a first championship. That was not in store for the #5 team. Finishing 13th in points, Martin posted 11 top-10 runs, and ran poorly through the summer months. With strong runs in the latter part of the season, Martin looked like 2009 form, hopefully rolling some momentum for 2011.   There is a lot on Martin’s plate this year. He’s basically getting kicked out the door at the end of the year. Not sure in his 2012 plans, Martin needs a good year to show that he can still race with the younger generation of drivers.

   Martin’s 2011 season will not be the Cinderella story he is looking for. Martin will get back inside the Chase, but Martin will not win in 2011. He is starting the “cool-down” of his career. Even with the best equipment, there is no way in stopping it.

- Dominic Aragon

à #6 David Ragan-Rousch-Fenway Racing   Back in 2007, David Ragan came into Rousch Fenway eager to begin a new era for the team of Fords. He finished dead close to the Chase in his first two years in the number six car. As time progressed, and as his car turned from white and navy to brown, David Ragan suddenly, and almost mysteriously, was blown off the map. Ragan quietly finished 27th in the points in 2009 and then 24th in 2010, but only seems to have good runs in the restrictor plate races. Not to mention the fact that an arguable powerhouse team is held up by this lack of success. This time around, Drew Blickensderfer and the number six crew are in jeopardy of their jobs. Ragan’s contract (for at least we know) ends at this point at the end of this year, as well as the sponsorship from UPS for the team. Right now, Ragan is in desperate times to make some sort of a spark in the coming year.

   This time around, it’s back to basics. Ragan didn’t have a rookie season where he could spend the time walking through everything in the Cup Series after his stellar earlier career. Now I think the team should step back and remain calm. Ragan has shown that he can be a contender in the past; now it’s time to evaluate how he drives on both spectrums, and combine the best strategies.

   To be honest, I can think of plenty of drivers that deserve a ride with Jack Rousch more than David Ragan, but what happens this season could very well seal the deal on David Ragan’s future.

- Peter Carcia

à #9 Marcos Ambrose-Richard Petty Motorsports

   Marcos Ambrose came into NASCAR as a road course ringer. The man from down under posted a 7th place finish in his first career race at Infineon, and went on to run 10 more races in ’08 before signing with JTG Daugherty Racing for 2009. In two years, he became more than just a road course ringer, posting a finishing average of around 20 in the two years with the team.

   In 2010 however, things got to a rocky start. With 2 consecutive engine problems in the first two races of the season, and a tier of the season with 5 DNFs in 10 races, things got rough with driver and team owner. Ambrose decided to move elsewhere, and after Ambrose posted 3rd at the Glen, Ambrose had no more DNFs. Some of which were still awful to see, but others like the race at Richmond before the Chase had him saying “I’m about to eat my words.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that in racing, but Ambrose had a 26th place finish in the points, down from last year, but a decent season no doubt considering the bad start   Now, we find Ambrose in a completely new environment. With Richard Petty as an owner and a tool-company sponsored Ford behind him, Ambrose can hopefully run with the leaders without the constant wrecks and engine problems. Bad luck is one thing, but as we learned from drivers like Elliot Sadler and Scott Speed, just making it to the race doesn’t help the team.

   I expect a decent season out of Ambrose. With the team being cut in half to two teams, he and teammate AJ Allmendinger can help each other after utter failure from the bulk of RPM last season. It will be hard for the team as a whole to rebound from their awful 2010, but who knows, we were questioning Harvick’s chances after 2009 and look what happened!

- Peter Carcia

à #11 Denny Hamlin-Joe Gibbs Racing

   If Jason Leffler would have performed better in 2005, we would not be talking about the kid from Virginia. Denny Hamlin might have had to wait for his chance in the Sprint Cup Series. Poor runs plagued the #11 team that season, with the car being driven by three others. By the end of the season, owner Joe Gibbs took a chance on NASCAR Nationwide Series driver Denny Hamlin to run the final seven races. In those seven races, Hamlin produced three top-10 runs, along with a pole position run at Phoenix. Those seven runs in ’05 set up a team that is one of NASCAR’s strongest today.

   With two wins in 2006, Hamlin became the rookie of the year en route to third in the point standings. After one win each in 2007 and 2008, Hamlin and crew finished 12th and 8th in points, respectively. However, things were just getting started for this promising team.

   Despite winning four times in ’09, DNFs ruined any chance at a championship run. In 2010, in spite of winning a season and career high eight times, the #11 team would fall short by 39 points to five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
   Expect the same in 2011.
   Look, Hamlin is great, especially at the cookie-cutter tracks, but FedEx Racing will not deliver a championship to the door of Joe Gibbs in 2011. This team is Chase caliber, and will win, no doubt about that. It’s just that this team seems to choke when it counts, and it will stay that way
- Dominic Aragon

à #13 Casey Mears-Germain Racing

   Two years ago, Casey Mears was on top of the food chain. Hendrick cars were with him in the battles of wits and endurance. Then, his career collapsed. After 2008, he was released from the 5 car, and set foot on what Brock Beard used to call “Agent Single-Oh Seven” as Richard Childress Racing gave a go at four teams. Jack Daniel’s Liquor left the team a year later, and Mears was out of a job again. For much of 2010 he struggled to find his footing in the Cup Series. He was put on hold as a relief driver during Denny Hamlin’s surgery recovery, but never got a chance to ride. He tried to fill in for Brian Vickers, Scott Speed hated him too much. Most of the time, he swapped around with start and park teams like Tommy Baldwin just to stay in contention if a new team arises looking for a driver.

   But along came Germain Racing, who was desperate for decent runs after multiple problems with driver Max Papis that caused a cut in Geico’s sponsorship of the car for the up upcoming year. Yet, as Casey took the ride late in the year, he gave Germain a depiction that it never had before. Mears hadn’t improved from his average finishes in the 20s, but it was still Germain Racing’s best haul. Now, Germain is the best Cup team to have been founded in 2009 or later, but there is still a lot of work to be done if they want to take the extra mile.

   Right now, the team is still considered small, not a factor by any means. However, with a driver many people know about, this could mean a fresh start for what people believed about the 13 team. Right now, just take it one step at a time. Last year, the team went full time and had a man geared up for redemption after a bad time lapse with big teams. This time around, with the owner points getting a fresh slate, it’s up to them to start all 5 of the upcoming races and do well so they can get themselves in the top 35 and make it smooth sailing. Mears can do it though; with only one DNQ in his term with the team in 2010 it seems clear that he knows how to make new owners of the lock-in cutoff.

   Through all of this however, there is one plaguing issue that neither Max Papis nor Casey Mears can control: the team’s apparent problems keeping the car on track. 3 of the 10 Chase races ended off with start and park finishes, and with full sponsorship from Geico for 18 races this year, the team must take the risk and make good runs instead of keeping it cool and making sure they are ready for the second half without full sponsorship. If they want any chance of getting additional sponsorship, they have to show that they are not afraid to run good. That’s why AJ Allmendinger got the full sponsorship he needed in 2009, and that’s why Whitney Motorsports is still unsure about 2011.  

   Casey Mears and sponsor Geico are currently only signed with the team for half of the season, so there is no guarantee this will be a team will be vying for the top 35 in points, but mark my words, he won’t go down without a fight.

- Peter Carcia

à #14 Tony Stewart-Stewart Haas Racing

   As an owner and a car driver, it’s hard not to find some sort of skepticism. When Tony Stewart began that bandwagon with two cars, the skeptics were all over him. In its opening season in 2009, both Stewart-Haas Racing drivers, working against the odds and made the Chase, with Captain Stewart leading the points before hand. In 2010 however, the momentum was not as good. Stewart finished the regular season off of the pace of the point lead. He still made the Chase, and eventually got a victory in Fontana, but it was still a season that he didn't prefer.   Stewart now is entering his third season as an owner/driver. As the most decorated of those sorts since Alan Kulwicki, you can expect the usual winning season coming out of this driver, and 2011 seems to be no different. The thing that kills him seems to be wrecks; but in a different way then you would think. In fact, he only had one accident that caused a DNF. Through that stat, however is the real problem, finding himself off of the lead lap. Stewart had nine races of these sorts in 2010, one of the highest of his career. Some were usual off days, and others were caused by collisions that were just enough for long term pit stops. Stewart unfortunately can’t find the way to get back into races after he has been knocked down, and while we may give his yearly swipe at Good Year, no doubt he has to feel a sense of urgency to rebound.

   With a great staff and loyal sponsors behind him, however, I am confident that Tony Stewart can find himself in the Championship hunt late, and no doubt that we will find some trips to victory lane in this upcoming season. It will just be how he works on those days that he isn’t the winner that let us know where he stands.

- Peter Carcia

à #16 Greg Biffle-Rousch Fenway Racing

   When Greg Biffle came into the 2010 season, he was part of a large chain of shackles in the Rousch garage. With the four remaining drivers going winless in 2009, it seemed that the team was losing strength by the second, especially with the cut down to four teams after NASCAR’s rules changed. Things got even worse later in the year when team owner Jack Rousch was hospitalized after a plane crash.

   The race that followed the events was Pocono. In recent years, it had been dubbed “Denny Hamlin Raceway,” but as Rousch was recovering from the accident, the 16 of Greg Biffle was tired of being simply the dark horse every time. On the final restart of the race, Biffle moved forward, preventing Sam Hornish Jr. from taking his first Cup victory (something that would probably have kept his job in the Cup Series) and cruised to his first Cup victory since the 2008 Chase.

   After that, the team felt a boost of momentum which brought 3 of the four teams into the 2010 Chase, with David Ragan moving at least to a spot better than last year, and made the moves to give Carl Edwards not only his first win in more than a year, but his first two wins. Biffle went on to get another much needed victory at Kansas later in the year.

   Now, as 2011 rolls on, Greg Biffle has his expectations a lot higher than it was in 2010. Now that we have seen him drive to excellence, he has the ability to have his name being put in the bandwagon of who can snap the 48’s streak. There was one thing that could be holding him back that is vital when winning a championship. Greg Biffle had 2 engine failures, at Auto Club and Michigan. This is the kind of thing you can’t have in a Championship caliber team, especially the fact that one of those races was in the Chase. This, as well as another trip in the garage in Martinsville, crippled his chances of making it to Homestead while still mathematically in it, and can’t stress enough for some of the drivers that falling back like that is bad business, and it will especially come off negative in a Chase format.

   Nevertheless, I expect some great stuff coming out of 2011 for Greg.

- Peter Carcia

à #17 Matt Kenseth-Rousch Fenway Racing

   Blame it on Matt Kenseth. Critics of the sport say that Kenseth’s consistency through 2003 is what gave birth to the modern day Chase system. Winning once in ’03, Kenseth held the point lead for 33 of the 36 races, clinching his first title by 90 points over Jimmie Johnson. Conspiracy theorists say the system was put into place, because NASCAR wants the championship winners to have won many races in the corresponding season. In all reality, even though NASCAR runs thick through all of our blood, it was time for change.

   Consistency is an attribute that Kenseth has. Heck, up until 2009, he and Jimmie Johnson were the only drivers to make the playoffs thorough 2008 every year since its beginning in 2004.

   After two years finishing outside the top-10 in points, 2010 brought some well needed luck for Kenseth. Finishing 5th in points, Kenseth had six top-5 runs and 15 top-10 runs. Coming into this season, Kenseth can expect to be blanketed with more championship runs.

   With the best Fords in the business, he will likely start the season with an impressive start. Look for Kenseth to race well in the 500, and move onto Phoenix to possibly win. This is a track that he has won at before (2002). From there, with a fast start, it will get better for the team, and he will be a factor for the attempt at dethroning Jimmie Johnson come November.  - Dominic Aragon

à #18 Kyle Busch-Joe Gibbs Racing

   Many people know the talent that Kyle Busch brings to the table. We know his outstanding careers in both the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and the Nationwide Series. Yet, through all of that, there has been one thing that has plagued Kyle Busch in the Cup Series. That is simply keeping his cool. We all know his storyline coming into any season for Busch. We usually hear either the excellent win he had, or the crazy wreck that he ended up in because of a lack of confidence. That is exactly how the 2010 season ended up for Busch; with wins at Dover and Richmond early in the season, along with his usual domination of the minor leagues brought up a notch, it seemed pretty clear that Kyle had a legitimate chance of getting the title. Then, disaster struck the team. Multiple wrecks and dozens of setbacks caused Kyle to begin heading off guard from his real target, and while he may have gotten NASCAR’s first clean sweep in Bristol, it seemed clear that Kyle was off guard for the rest of the season. Heading into the Chase, Kyle started in 3rd place, and after failed opportunities began to spring up, his numbers went down. Kyle finished 8th in the points, without a top 10 in the final four races of the year.

   We all have seen this before. Just look at 2008 when he held his best opportunity. With the most wins by a handful coming into New Hampshire, he looked very much like a champion. What happened then was the same thing as 2010 at its worst, crashing and losing battles just enough in the beginning to keep him out of contention in the end.

   It’s now or never from here on in for Kyle, or at least it should be. In just six years of full time competition, he has turned himself into the sport’s favorite driver to hate. That has affected everything from the way people drive around him to the negative attitude that is put onto him. Kevin Harvick said it best, one move Kyle Busch puts on a driver and he is officially “driving like a clown.” That’s a rare occurrence, but that’s how bad it has gotten.

   I think I speak for the entire racing world when I say this: Kyle, stop acting like a jurk to everybody, stop trying to do unthinkable, stop automatically saying “we’re done” after every race. Get rid of all of that useless drama that does nothing for anyone, and race. You’d be surprised how close if not winning the championship if the idiocy is taken out of the equation.

- Peter Carcia

à #20 Joey Logano-Joe Gibbs Racing

   Two years ago, we were thinking that with Tony Stewart leaving the 20 team, the Gibbs ride would be irreplaceable. But along came a young gun by the name of Joey Logano, only eighteen years of age. He had needed only a start in Kentucky to make a statement in the Nationwide Series, so Joe Gibbs gave the ride in 2009. After 2 wreck outs in the first 5 races, it seemed Logano would simply end up a dud. Then, pit strategy settled in his home track, and suddenly he was the youngest NASCAR Sprint Cup race winner, and in a dominating fashion, Joey Logano was 2009 Rookie of the Year, finishing 20th in the points.

   Last year, Logano got even farther in the hunt for his first Chase. He may not have gotten to that goal, but he finished 6 spots better in 14th thanks to double the top 10s and top 5s from ’09. However, unlike the year before, Joey failed to get any wins, something that is now a key thanks to the new Chase setup.

   Now, entering into 2011, Joey has become the man to look for just as much as his predecessor. Many are predicting that he will be the dark horse advancing in the Chase this year, but as said before, the new rules for the Chase are the keys that make some question if he can make it. If Joey does not get any wins in the upcoming preseason, he will have to do a lot more work in consistency than he would have to last year. In fact, if the numbers were similar to 2010, he would have to make enough momentum for 429 (older points system) more markers than he had last year. If you put that into perspective, that’s turning his three worst finishes (all DNFs) into top 10 performances.

   That brings us into the second, and probably the more common mistake we see out of Joey; his luck. Joey was caught up in 4 race-ending wrecks, and had a total of nine races under the top 25 mark. Granted, not all of those numbers were his fault, but if a driver like him is in this type of situation, it’s hardly going to end up good. In fact, his first two races in a Cup car ended up in last place due to events such as these. Logano may have found a way to plow towards the front of the field, but there are some points where he acted like Eli Manning. He wanted to make the unbelievable, spectacular move, and ending up wasting precious time. He can make good passes, but if he can’t fight off the other driver, especially when it’s early, don’t try it. That’s why veterans like Jeff Burton are still making the chase, and Logano isn’t.

   I have faith that Logano has a lot more potential than he did when he started two years ago. It’s all about how he takes his momentum.

- Peter Carcia

à #22 Kurt Busch-Penske Racing

   Kurt Busch has had some excellent success in the last few years. Since his championship run in 2004, he has never gone a season without winning a race, and he is currently the defending winner of the Coca-Cola 600, one of NASCAR’s most prestigious events.

   But aside from the 2 wins and the Chase berth, the season did not go as planned for the Blue Deuce. After five top 10s in six races following the 600 win, Kurt Busch began to add in some bad runs. An engine failure at Michigan, a wreck in Pocono, and getting lapped in the regular season finale at Richmond; these were foreshadows that lead to a completely forgettable Chase. Kurt only had 2 top 10s in the Chase for the Cup, and 4 runs ended up with finishes below 20th place. Kurt Busch finished 11th in the points, the lowest level since 2008.

   Thing have changed now in Penske Racing however; instead of three teams, they are back to two, and Kurt has turned from the Blue Deuce to Double Deuce. Brad Keselowski is the only guy left besides Kurt, and there is now yellow and red on Kurt Busch’s hood and fire suit. Now that there are just two teams to worry about and both with sponsorship set, the team can focus more on the cars and the ability of its staff. When Busch first came into the Chase, we were expecting good coming out of it, and unfortunately the team collapsed as it tried to sponsor their cars. Not to mention the fact that Kurt Busch became at times as ignorant as his brother, ending up in bad situations that killed any chance of championship hopes. Ultimately, with what could be better equipped cars thanks to the closing of one team, it will henceforth be depending on how the driver does, and if Roger Penske and Kurt Busch can prevent the collapse we watched in the 2010 Chase.

   I don’t expect a blowout year for the 22 team nor do I expect a bust as we saw in 2008, but there is still some work to be done if Penske and company want the Sprint Cup put in the mix.

- Peter Carcia

à #24 Jeff Gordon-Hendrick Motorsports

   Winning once in the past 113 races isn’t the Jeff Gordon we have all come to know. Despite finishing top-10 in points the last 16 of 17 seasons, Gordon just can’t seem to finish out the season right. Plagued with poor runs in the 2010 Chase, Gordon finished 9th in points. Did getting married and having children affect his drive for winning? Quite the contrary really. Gordon says that he wants to win even more today so he and his kids can experience victory together.

   However, it seems that Gordon might be losing his competitive touch just a little. In five years, Jeff Gordon could very well be a distant memory to NASCAR fans. Don’t count him out to make the Chase, but this could very well be Gordon’s last truly competitive year.

   I say, based on past trends of other drivers, Gordon could be starting the “decline” of his career. Gordon might not be finishing top-5 like we are used to seeing come the next couple of years. It will be a slow change, but one that will start this year. Just like every other driver, he will eventually go down that irreversible road, but his could be sooner or later, possibly following a trail former teammate Terry Labonte did.

- Dominic Aragon

à #27 Paul Menard-Richard Childress Racing

   It seems pretty simple trying to point out Paul Menard in a field of 43 with his classic fluorescent yellow Menard’s colors. Lately, however, that sight has not been seen up towards the front. From DEI to Yates Racing, Menard has kept himself quiet for much of his career. However, since Richard Petty Motorsports had to cut back, Paul was forced to go to a new team owner for the third straight year; and when he was signed by Richard Childress, the whole ballgame changed.

   In 2010, Paul Menard made some great strides. He was in Chase position from races four through six, only to be hit by multiple bad finishes that did just enough damage to last the rest of the year. However, with a 99% laps run average and an average finishing rank at 19.8, he had his best season in his four full time Sprint Cup campaigns.

   Now, with the rising stars in the Richard Childress garage behind him, Menard could very likely find his peak in these upcoming three years (contract ends in 2013). He has shown early in the year that he can find himself in contention, but it all depends on how consistent Paul Menard can keep the car. Paul was excellent in the car in some weeks, and then would end up in the high 20s a week later. This sort of racing unfortunately brings you down in this sport, old points system or new, so it is up to Paul and his crew to make sure momentum lasts longer than it has. If it doesn’t, we get seasons like this past one for Menard, as it turned from unthinkable to just another day in the office.

   Paul Menard has shown he can run with the right team; now it’s time to build on it.

- Peter Carcia

à #29 Kevin Harvick-Richard Childress Racing

   Back in his early days, we knew that Harvick would find some way to compete adequately, and in 2010, he proved to the world that his off season in ’09 was 100% fluke. With the most top tens of any driver in the field, Harvick was able to stand strong as the final of three drivers in contention coming into Homestead.    The chance of glory was shattered, however, as Harvick received added pressure after a pit lane speeding penalty caused him to work a little harder. He eventually ended up with a top 5 run, but it was not enough to compensate for the few points behind he was from the 11 and 48 cars.

   Now, he comes into 2011 as a year for redemption. He has a new sponsor in Budweiser, and now, as he put it in his win at Talladega, it is time for him to make sure Pennzoil regrets leaving him for Penske. It’s time for him to leave the “where did he come from?” aspect of his wins and bring it to the level of “there he goes again!” That is something he deserves, at least for now.   We all know him not only a fast driver, but a consistent one. He barely gets himself into wrecks and can plow through the field when he wants to. There is only one missing piece of the puzzle that got him an elusive point lead in the regular season (one by the way that would give him the championship in the classic points system). That would be the amount of wins. He can get the top 5s and he can get himself in a great position, but in a series that has the chase, you have to get wins. Although he did get three wins, Harvick did not get a trip to victory lane in the last ten races of the season, and if he had won two races, say Talladega and Homestead where he was the arguably the closest to winning, there would be a different storyline coming into this year. With a great staff behind him however, don’t expect him to be happy with the same results. This man is fast, consistent, and barely finds himself in the garage early. If anybody, Kevin Harvick looks to be the man that dethrones the 48 car in 2011.

- Peter Carcia

à #31 Jeff Burton-Richard Childress Racing

   NASCAR’s unofficial mayor Jeff Burton has made 520 consecutive starts in the Sprint Cup Series. Dating back to 1995, his streak puts him third among active drivers (the two ahead are Bobby Labonte and Jeff Gordon), and ninth all-time. Despite making over 500 starts in a row, Burton has not won since 2008. Entering 2010, Burton has struggled the last two years, finishing 17th and 12th in points, respectively.    After no wins since 2001, and entering 2004 without a primary sponsor, Jeff Burton left Roush Racing to join Richard Childress Racing mid-season. Finishing the year 18th in points, Burton had another off-year in 2005. With only six top-10 runs, and 18th in points again, Burton entered 2006 with a streak of over 175 races with no wins. However, Burton won the Fall Dover race, and even held the Chase point lead for a few weeks. In 2007, Burton won at the Spring Texas race, and made the Chase for a second year in a row. A year later, Burton won twice in 2008 and finished 6th in points.

   The last two years, on the other hand, have not shown statistically what Burton is capable of. After an absence from the Chase in 2009, Burton made it this past year, but failed to win a race.

In 2011, Jeff Borton will contend for more wins. Expcet this cat (no pun intended) to make the Chase, and possibly win somewhere like Dover.

- Dominic Aragon

à #33-Clint Bowyer-Richard Childress Racing

   After finishing 2nd in the NASCAR Busch Series point standings in 2005, Clint Bowyer would declare candidacy for rookie of the year in 2006 in the Sprint Cup Series. Bowyer would drive the #07 Jack Daniels Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing, replacing Dave Blaney

   After a decent rookie campaign in 2006, Bowyer won at New Hampshire and finished 3rd in points in 2007. Winning again in 2008, Bowyer made the Chase to finish 5th in points.

   After missing the 2009 Chase, Bowyer and crew made it this past season, winning twice. Bowyer won the opener for the Chase like 2007. However, for the points he was awarded, it as well ought to have been a 40th place. After a 150 point penalty, Bowyer continued to struggle and wound up 10th in points.

   In 2011, Bowyer will continue to rack in more and more top-10 runs. With an average of 16 top-10 runs per season, Bowyer will notch a few top-5s, and maybe even win again, but no Chase berth is in store for the team.

- Dominic Aragon

à #34 Travis Kvapil-Front Row Motorsports

   Travis Kvapil has been in NASCAR’s top series for four full-time seasons, and has found very limited success.  Scoring six top-10 runs in 146 starts, Kvapil has bounced around to four different teams during that time.

   In 2008, running for Yates Racing, Kvapil picked up a pole at Talladega, en route to four top-10 runs, and 23rd in points. Unfortunately, that’s the best Kvapil has been able to do in the Sprint Cup Series.   The 2003 Truck Champ has raced for Front Row Motorsports since late 2009. With owner Bob Jenkins funding all the team’s cars out of his own pocket, the performance of the cars has been below average. With his best finish of 16th at Talladega in 2010, Kvapil finished 33rd in the point standings, making 34 of the 36 races. With an average finish of 29.5, however, Kvapil and his teammates would usually finish a few laps down each race. This might change, come 2011.

   The way Travis Kvapil has run, though, I just don’t see a top-25 season strung together. Keep in mind: FRM’s best finish was 14th with a rookie driver, and their best qualifying effort was 10th once with John Andretti. Expect Kvapil to be a factor at both Talladega races, but FRM needs to either land more sponsorship or concentrate more on the cookie-cutter tracks.   Anticipate on Kvapil to improve to about 27th in points, better then 2010, but he is also going to run a full-time schedule in the Truck Series. If he decides to run part-time in the Sprint Cup Series, he will race about 20-24 races, with someone like Tony Raines filling in for him. With Front Row Motorsports cutting back in 2011, expect a more consistent runs from FRM, with both the 34 and 38.

- Dominic Aragon

à #38 David Gilliland-Front Row Motorsports

   It’s hard to believe David Gilliland has had a great career in the Sprint Cup Series. With only 2 career top 5’s and four top 10’s in 5 seasons of racing, it looks to be another J.D. McDuffie moment in the world of NASCAR. For the last 2 years, Gilliland has driven with unsponsored teams just trying to get their names on the map, such as TRG Motorsports and Front Row, and you know Taco Bell is always placed on the hood of Gilliland’s FRM car? Well, the team owners hold stock in that company as they do for Long John Silver’s and A&W, so technically; they’re not getting sponsored in the races they run.

    That has clearly put a burden on the entire team. It’s not just Kevin Conway who was going multiple laps down early. Nearly every team, Gilliland included, got nipped very hard when it came to keeping up to speed. Gilliland’s best finish in 2010: 19th (Martinsville Spring, Infineon). This raises the usual questions: why is he still in this sport? How can this guy keep teams going? Heck, even some drivers when he had caused accidents had questioned his authority to race in the Cup Series. However, I don’t believe it is all David’s fault.

   Unfortunately, his best assignment at Yates Racing fell in 2008 due to the economy, so you can consider him to be one of the refugees of the bad happenings on that side of the spectrum. However, his team has failed to show that they are worthy contenders. Ultimately there was barely any help from the team no matter what driver you would see in the cockpit. I see it as this; in 2009, when it was down to one full time team, Front Row with driver John Andretti looked like they had potential. They didn’t always pull back and let the countless amount of cars lap them. They fought for their finishes. Now, for the team’s two cars, and especially with Kevin Conway in 2010, it seems that they just give up and let everyone pass. Although it isn’t as bad as starting and parking, there is no way any sponsor would want to pay $30,000 to pay for a bad car’s expenses, especially in this economy.

   My only advice for Gilliland and company is this: The cut down to 2 cars in 2011 will help the team to an extent, but they need to bring it back to one full time team if they expect to compete adequately. Cut down to one, and make sure you have the necessary work. That’s how every other team made their fortune in the beginning. I can speak for much of the NASCAR world in saying it’s more of the same for FRM.

- Peter Carcia 

à #39 Ryan Newman-Stewart Haas Racing

   When Ryan Newman took the job of a secondary car for driver-owned Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009, many people wondered about his future. As the defending winner of the Daytona 500, it would be interesting to see how Ryan would do. It ended up not so good, as the rain shortened ’09 Daytona 500 gave Ryan Newman a 36th place finish, two laps behind the field. The season went on decent enough for a Chase position, but while the championship was in reach at one point, the 14.7 finishing average was not enough to find him close to the championship.

   When 2010 came along, the season began with an even rockier start. Not only did he wreck out of Daytona in 34th, he lost an engine at Fontana a week later and his best finish in the first 5 races was 14th in Bristol. In Martinsville however, Ryan’s luck changed, and with it marked a 4th place finish in that race, and going on to take the victory a week later in Phoenix, his first win since the elusive 2008 Daytona 500. That didn’t last, though. Newman would have 2 more wrecks and an average finish down to 15.7 in a season where he missed the Chase.

   This shows his one weakness; either Newman is really good or really disappointing. We will only see Newman back into the Chase if he can prevent those days where he runs 20th or so simply because of the car. Under Pressure, he can make something happen, that’s how he got his last two wins. It’s setting himself up for it that plagues him, and that fact makes all the difference when you are in this sport. As Stewart-Haas Racing enters its third year of competition, I expect Newman to run good, possibly a win or two, but once again, no Chase for the 39 team.

- Peter Carcia

à #42 Juan Pablo Montoya-Earnhardt Ginassi Racing (with Felix Sabates)

   Juan Montoya has paved the way to diversity in the Sprint Cup Series. Starting with the season finale in 2006, Montoya has raced in every race since then, capturing two wins and an appearance in the Chase.

   With Casey Mears leaving Chip Ganassi Racing after the 2006 season, that left the ride open to a number of drivers. Chip Ganassi hired Montoya to drive for Rookie of the year in 2007. Racing every race, Montoya won the road course Infineon race in June, becoming the third Rookie of the Year award winner in a row. Since 2007, Montoya has won one more time, which came at the other road course, Watkins Glen, in the summer of 2010.

   In 2011, Montoya will have, like 2010, limited success. Desptie winning, Montoya dropped to 17th in points. Although a lot of drivers would love to have a year he did, Montoya’s 2010 season was tarnished with bad luck. After making the Chase in 2009, and with high hopes coming in to 2010, Montoya just couldn’t catch a lucky break.

   Expect Montoya to be a contender at the superspeedway and road course races. Some might say that 2009 was a fluke for Montoya. I tend to think that he is a top-10 driver, but he just can’t seem to get lucky enough.

- Dominic Aragon

à #43 AJ Allmendinger - Richard Petty Motorsports

   In 2009, AJ Allmendinger was the up and coming driver in the Richard Petty garage, struggling to even find sponsorship to continue regardless of his third place finish at Daytona. Now, just two years later, he has been pushed into the captain position at Richard Petty Motorsports, eager to bring the King’s racing team back on the map. With unheard of poise when it comes to being a young, smaller team driver, he could be just the person. Allmendinger has shown that he can race with the big boys, too. He got the pole at the Phoenix spring race, and didn’t give up without a fight like most pole sitters only drivers seem to be these days, and we can’t forget his near victory runs at the Monster Mile. Allmendinger has also shown growth, which is important for a young driver like him. In Allmendinger’s last year with TRB in 2008, AJ was just riding the top 35 in owner points for Red Bull’s number two, and now we see him in 19th in last year’s points, with 2 top 5’s and 8 top 10’s, far better than his previous seasons in the Cup Series.

   If he wants to take on the field on a regular basis however, it will take even more. Problems in pit lane cost Allmendinger, including that stellar run in Dover, where he was battling with the two most hated drivers in NASCAR (Johnson and Rowdy) for the crown, until bad happenings struck the team. Not to mention the fact that he seems to get caught up in a few too many wrecks. Most of them seem to be just a heap of bad luck like the only upside down car since the spoiler, but others could be avoidable, and thankfully they only mean slightly longer trips to the pits for all but three wrecks this year   AJ Allmendinger, on a weekly wreck free basis, seems to average in the low teens in the finishing marks. Sprinkle on a few tracks like Dover and The Glen that he can shine on, and he might challenge for the Chase.

- Peter Carcia

à #47 Bobby Labonte – JTG Daugherty Racing

   From champion in 2000, to starting and parking in 2010, who could have expected this?  Bobby Labonte was always running in the top-10, and won 21 races in a span of nine years. What went wrong?

   Leaving Joe Gibbs Racing in 2005 to pursue other opportunities was the start of a chain reaction. From 2006-2008, despite only finishing top-10 13 times in 108 races, Labonte never finished lower then 21st in the final point standings. Driving one of NASCAR’s most famed numbers, the 43 car, Labonte was always in a fully funded car.

   Then the recession hit.

   Despite the uncertainty, Labonte was tagged to drive the Hall of Fame Racing 96 car for 2009, with newcomer Ask.com as the team sponsor. However, two thirds into the season, with only one top-10 finish in 24 races, HoF Racing brought on rookie driver Erik Darnell to the team since he had additional sponsorship. Labonte race seven of the last 12 races of the year with 2009 upstart The Racer’s Group. As things looked promising with a top-10 at Talladega and another top-20 run, Labonte signed on for 2010.

   With only 12 fully funded races on TRG’s plate at the beginning of the season, Labonte ran two unsponsored races at Phoenix and Richmond, respectively. After starting and parking three times in four races, Labonte knew it was time to move on. Racing for Robby Gordon Motorsports, Phoenix Racing, and Stavola-Labonte Racing, Bobby was only able to post two top-20 finishes, failing to crack the top-10. In all of his full time years of racing, this was the first time since 1993 that Labonte didn’t finish top-10.

   That will all change in 2011. With a full time ride, and a fully funded car, Labonte will return to top-25 form. With 199 career top-10 finishes under his belt, Labonte will get his 200th career top-10 this season, and could even capture a few more. My prediction says that he will finish 25th in points, with three top-10 runs.

– Dominic Aragon

à #48 Jimmie Johnson-Hendrick Motorsports

   Let’s be honest, a year ago this would be a sure bet that Johnson would win the championship. This time around, however, the 48 has been more prone to questioning. Johnson simply did not win the bulk of the races in the chase that he is expected to win, like Fontana and Martinsville. Not to mention the countless amounts of wrecks that happened in the regular season. Johnson was able to get the championship eventually, but it was the hardest challenge since his first championship.   Because of those happenings, the media is starting to spur around those dreaded questions; is Jimmie losing his touch? Are other drivers finding the way to stop him? Will the sprint for six (as I would like to call it) be no more? We obviously won’t know for another nine months or so, but Keep in mind the reason why he had a bad regular season: wrecks. They plague everyone for at least one season of their career, and this could in fact be one of them for Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus. However, there were uncharacteristic moves by Johnson in the previous chase that could prove a change in the scenery.

   You see, it all started at Texas in ’09. You probably know the story. Johnson had a 100+ point lead, he wanted to take it easy, don’t pull for wins and get himself wrecked. Well, that happened anyway, courtesy of Sam Hornish Jr., and Johnson spent the rest of the season not caring about the stats and going for victories, which showed in his win the following week at Phoenix. Now look at this past year. Johnson began the season with a bang, snagging victories in Fontana, Vegas, and his first in Bristol. Then, Talladega struck, which started multiple wrecks and not-so-smart penalties that questioned the big guy’s drive for 5. After that, Johnson seemed to get to get a lot more conservative. He wasn’t going for wins so much as good point position days. It brought him into the chase, and the highest amount of top 5’s among all drivers (23) paid him off with the championship. Even so, the only reason why he was able to get that far was the 5 wins in the regular season, which means he will have to do the same thing or possibly even more if he wants to get another championship.

   If it’s one thing we’ve learned from 2010, it’s that every team is beatable. Really, it’s about who cares the least about a person’s title.

- Peter Carcia

à #56 Martin Truex Jr.-Michael Waltrip Racing

   Martin Truex Jr. is your average middle pack driver. He hasn’t been in victory lane since the COT switch, and after moving from Earnhardt-Ginassi to the Napamaniac Machine in 2010, he got an extra kick in the face when his successor in the 1 car won two of the most prestigious events in NASCAR, while he and his team had a mere one pole, one top 5, and 7 top 10’s. This would lead into a 22nd place finish in the points, far off the pace of the Chase.

   Although these numbers seem a little weak, the team actually made some progress in their quest to get on top of the mountain. When the 56 team was the 55 and owner Michael Waltrip was still “owner/driver,” Waltrip finished 33rd in the points thanks to him not riding the road courses, and was also only 400 points ahead of the top 35 in owner points. Even on Waltrip’s not so good career, that is still a bad season for MWR.

   The driver is also starting to climb back to how he was back in 2007 and 2008. Martin’s average finish went from a 22 to an 18, just decimals away from 2008 level where he was 15th in points. However, unlike that year, it was more of the amount of runs leveling off really disappointing finishes, hence the one top 5 compared to 7 in his ’07 heyday. Martin knows how to get victories in this sport, but it will take as much work as possible from all sides to get back to where Martin’s career flourished. Until that happens, it will just be more of the same.

- Peter Carcia

à #78 Regan Smith - Furniture Row Racing

   A lot of people may conquer with this idea, but I think there is a lot of potential for Furniture Row and Regan Smith. The team had good numbers, with a consistent average finishing rank of 24.7, which is not bad for a small team. However, the team failed to get a top ten in 2010, and was caught up in a handful of accidents. However, there were points at the end of the season with gutsy moves, which many would likely fail to execute brilliantly. Those kind of moves lead him to 4 top 20 finishes in the last seven races of the year, likely Regan’s best run of his short career in the Cup Series. The team also spared many engine problems. With only 1 engine failure and 1 suspension problem, Regan has a good group to work with, in part thanks to part ownership from Richard Childress. There is only one thing that the team is missing, and that is a driver in Smith that can get the job done weekly. Regan still has some bad material in his system, and normally he has run as the guy just barely on the lead lap when he runs without problems. Regan needs to get better at taking that speed to the track, because the races are not always won by gutsy moves.

   Regan had his best points finish in his two full time years, and the fact that he was able to do it still able to do that with more DNFs than he had combined DNQs and DNFs in ’08 (3 to 2) lets us know that he is gaining experience and ability, but it will take these things for him to be able to win and ultimately get himself in contention.

- Peter Carcia

à #83 Brian Vickers-Team Red Bull

   Brian Vickers was on top of the NASCAR world in 2009. He got his second career win, he qualified for the Chase, and he gave Team Red Bull its best season of play in the Sprint Cup Series. Then, 11 races into 2010, his career came to a crashing halt. A serious blood clot forced him to miss out on defending his Chase spot, and with Scott Speed and Reed Sorenson taking over, it brought Team Red Bull off of the map for the rest of the season. Now, after a near eight month hiatus, he is back and ready for redemption.

   For this season in the Austrian based racing team’s garage however, the environment has shifted. Normally, they would be the two-driver team with a couple of no names, but this time around, people can recognize their drivers. With Kasey Kahne in the other ride for this year, we find Vickers however more a student than a teacher, but that doesn’t stop the 27 year old from North Carolina, as he looks to capitalize when the NASCAR community sees him brighter than ever.

   But while there is a heartwarming and amazing storyline for Vickers, there are some things being questioned about the Chase spot he conquered in’09. To start, he was barely a factor in the Chase, as he quickly became the first driver to fall 500 points behind, and ended up the only man not reaching 6,000 points in the 12. Plus, in the 11 races before the blood clot, Vickers came off on the wrong foot. While he did finish 3rd in the Budweiser Shootout, there wasn’t much coming from the Red Bulldozer after that. After three straight DNFs however, Vickers got down to business, scoring 9th in Richmond and an impressive 3rd at the Lady in Black, right before the blood clot hit. It is unsure whether Brian will be able to carry 8-month-old momentum into a completely different season, but Brian has what it takes. He no longer is the driver who got a lucky break at Talladega. Now, he is a name on the elite list, and it is up to Vickers to use that title accordingly.

   This year, I expect a reboot type of year from Vickers, but we’ll see him back in Victory Lane in no time.

- Peter Carcia

à #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr-Hendrick Motorsports

   It was Michigan, June 2008. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was taking his first green flag at the track in a Hendrick car, the number 88 Amp Energy Chevrolet. He was in a 76-race hiatus from Victory Lane, and his words earlier in the week were that with Hendrick Cars, he knew it was only himself that controlled whether he would make wins. As he quoted, “Put up, or shut up.” The green-white-checkered finish began, and Dale Junior, unsure whether he would get the fuel to make it all the way, sprung into the lead. After the white flag, a driver spins out on the front stretch. Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins his first race in two years.

   That was the last time we ever saw the site of the great one’s son making it into Victory Lane. Since that race, 93 points races, spanning two and a half years, have passed. In those, there has seemed to be nothing but despair, disappointment, and a mere seven top 10 finishes in 2010. While 2010 had some bright spots, Junior moved father into his woes, going through two crew chiefs and utter disgust, and while many from the press have hope that he can return to Victory Lane, it seems obvious that he is in desperate mode.

   This race is different.

   It was ten years ago when we lost the great one. The man only pointed out by one digit, 3, and here we are, at a milestone in racing’s coveted history with the heir of the Earnhardt dynasty in dire straights. As we walk into the place where he was second last year, both on the starting grid and after the checkered flag, we look back at his father’s legacy.

   How Dale Earnhardt Jr does in the Daytona 500 could very well affect what happens to this sport, whether the attendance numbers continue to fall, whether the fan base will have any hope of Junior’s return to excellence, and possibly the fate of an entire legacy lies in this man’s hand. We know he can still perform well in this track; after all he made some great moves to plow to second in last year’s event. The real question, novel concept, is how the reaction will be to the new surface. Keep in mind; all of the Chevrolets were hot during the winter testing, so he very well could have a shot.

   For the rest of the season, however, things are a little different. Junior tends to stay around low 20s for a running position, so it is up to new crew chief Steve Letarte and driving skills to bring Dale back to that aspect of the playing field. He said it best two years ago, “Put up, or shut up.”

   It will be a historical site to see if Dale wins at Daytona, but there is still a lot for Dale to do if he wants to get back into contention.

- Peter Carcia

à #99 Carl Edwards-Rousch Fenway Racing

   For the first 34 races of the 2010 season, it was the same old disappointment that lasted all of 2009. After getting second in the Sprint Cup points in 2008, he hadn’t won a single race. The situation, simply put, was a disaster.

   But as the penultimate race of the year at Phoenix was winding down, point leader and race leader Denny Hamlin had to take a trip to the pits for fuel. An opportunity struck for the 99 team to take the race, and after months of doubt and calls of a fluke, Carl Edwards was again a race winner. Carl hasn’t lost a points race since then.

   Now there is an even greater challenge for Edwards. With the numbers wiped clean and the slate cleared of his 2 year hiatus from victory lane, it’s no longer about simply making it to victory lane, it’s about doing it enough times to get the title. He has been Jimmie Johnson’s closest rival before, and although he was the guy to get the most wins in the Chase amongst all of Johnson’s challengers, he still fell short of the title.

   This year, Edwards has the momentum on his side. With the last two races of the year in his favor, it looks to be like Carl Edwards could pull what Denny Hamlin did last year. He knows how to win in quite a few of the Chase tracks, and has the rapidly improving Rousch-Fenway team behind him. All in all, the two wins in Phoenix and Homestead could be the first step.

- Peter Carcia

 

Peter’s Top 25:

1.) #48 Jimmie Johnson – Yeah, novel concept, but I don’t see anyone right now that can manage the domination.

2.) #29 Kevin Harvick – A level of consistency that we haven’t seen since his days running the Goodwrench colors. This man looks sharp.

3.) #99 Carl Edwards – Some may say the 2 wins at the end could get him the championship. I’m not the kind of guy to jump to conclusions.

4.) #16 Greg Biffle – This year’s Dark Horse; this time, it’s for real.

5.) #11 Denny Hamlin – Championship-savvy decisions brought him dead close, but bad momentum from the end of the year may boil over into 2011.

6.) #14 Tony Stewart – He’s fifteen pounds lighter in the cockpit this year, and he will likely have the same sort of comeback year we saw in 2009.

7.) #17 Matt Kenseth – Kenseth was able to climb up the chart at the end of last year, and there looks to be a good chance he may take this one.

8.) #18 Kyle Busch – A little softer blow at the end is possible, that last word being the key. Busch will likely be one of the wild card drivers.

9.) #20 Joey Logano – I like the level of consistency he’s developed, but he still makes some rookie mistakes.

10.) #22 Kurt Busch – From big blue to mellow yellow, a season only he would hate.

11.) #24 Jeff Gordon – I see a win from the team this season, but the point level goes from bad to worse.

12.) #43 AJ Allmendinger – What are you, nuts??? Yes in fact, I am; thanks for the compliment! :)

-------CHASE CUTOFF--------------------

13.) #33 Clint Bowyer – Somehow, I just don’t see him making it.

14.) #1 Jamie McMurray – This is a typical phase in a driver. Better consistency, but not as many wins.

15.) #31 Jeff Burton – Burton seems to be the ultimate quiet success, getting in the chase almost unnoticed. It won’t be the same this year.

16.) #39 Ryan Newman – A stronger season than last year, but offsetting occurrences look likely.

17.) #4 Kasey Kahne – Team Red Bull looking strong, but Kasey’s major success will probably have to wait one more year.

18.) #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. – A rebound looks very bleak. First win could come in a super speedway if any at all.

19.) #00 David Reutimann – I am not really in favor of Reuty’s chances.

20.) #27 Paul Menard – The contract with RCR could be that extra spark Menard needs to stay in contention.

21.) #42 Juan Pablo Montoya – I’m still calling 2009 a fluke right now.

22.) #83 Brian Vickers – Let’s be honest, it’s hard to rebound after a health problem that serious.

23.) #5 Mark Martin – Once he gets out of Hendrick, his career looks to have a Brett Favre type collapse, minus the nudity, of course.

24.) #2 Brad Keselowski – As a wise man once said; “Kid, we do things a little differently up here.”

25.) #9 Marcos Ambrose – Tasmania’s own will likely sweep the road courses (I’m not sure RPM is that “fall back and see what happens” type)

Dominic’s Top 25-

1.) #48 Jimmie Johnson – At this time, no one can stop him. He is just that good.

2.) #99 Carl Edwards – Expect Edwards to win a few times this upcoming season.

3.) #14 Tony Stewart – Stewart-Haas Racing’s Tony Stewart will be very consistent in 2011.

4.) #11 Denny Hamlin – A few wins this upcoming season will propel a late season charge, but not enough to overthrow the 48.

5.) #22 Kurt Busch – Scaling back to two cars, Busch’s program will be the top-notch car at Penske Racing.

6.) #29 Kevin Harvick – Expect Harvick to start off strong, which in turn will provide momentum to make the Chase.

7.) #17 Matt Kenseth – This team will make the Chase, but I just don’t see a 2003 season in store.

8.) #18 Kyle Busch – Inconsistency is what kills championship runs for Kyle Busch. Wins? Sure. Championship caliber? I don’t think so.

9.) #31 Jeff Burton – NASCAR’s unofficial mayor will lead the 31 team to the Promise Land for a second consecutive year.

10.) #43 AJ Allmendinger – As the new face of RPM, expect this guy to notch a few more top 10 runs.

11.) #5 Mark Martin – The “Go Granddaddy” Chevrolet will perform better, with more top 5 runs.

12.) #24 Jeff Gordon – This year could start the decline of Gordon’s career, likely taking a path Terry Labonte had.

-----------CHASE CUTOFF----------------------

13.) #1 Jamie McMurray – He’s never made the Chase, and it’s going to stay that way.

14.) #16 Greg Biffle – Everyone talks about Biffle as the Dark Horse. Not happening in 2011.

15.) #33 Clint Bowyer – Bowyer, coming off his best season, will dip too many notches to compete in the Chase.

16.) #20 Joey Logano – Logano will run better in 2011, but the Chase seems a little far-fetched.

17.) #27 Paul Menard – With better equipment, the new 27 team will have chances at winning races.

18.) #00 David Reutimann – Although he has shown signs of a Chase-Worthy driver, this isn’t the year that he breaks that shell.

19.) #4 Kasey Kahne – Nothing special this season with a one year deal.

20.) #42 Juan Pablo Montoya – Despite some promising runs, Montoya’s comfort zone is around 20th in points.

21.) #2 Brad Keselowski- Keselowski will run better in 2011, as he will be in contention to win restrictor plate races in the Blue Deuce.

22.) #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Junior’s chances at making the Chase don’t look promising. Despite running well, he cannot finish out a race. Expect more of that in 2011.

23.) #39 Ryan Newman – Newman’s potential seems to be slipping. He’ll have a drop in the points for the second straight year.

24.) #78 Regan Smith – In 2011, FRR will score its first team top ten runs with a driver who has never finished inside the top 10.

25.) #47 Bobby Labonte – With only one top ten finish in the last 69 races, Labonte will make a return to the top 25 in points, with better equipment and a fully funded car.

So Sit Back, Relax, and Have a Great Season!

Gentleman, Start Your Engines!